I’m in need of a haircut, so I ask Abu Talat if he thinks it would be safe to get one here, risking the time on the street required to do so.
Smiling, he says, “Yes Dahr, it may be possible, but we must make sure we have confidence in the barber so you get a haircut, and not a head cut!”
His jokes provide him with great amusement…but I’ve begun enjoying them myself, in a sick sort of way.
He has two cars-and we use the older one for our work. It is horribly beat up and dirty, but makes for good cover. This is the car that someone offered him $3,000 for not long ago because they said it would make a good bomb.
So now this is referred to as “the bomb car.” Abu Talat tells me, “Come on, we’ll take the bomb car and go to this interview I’ve fixed.”
This time last year I arrived in Iraq for the first time. I never thought I would look back on that time as one of relative calm compared to Iraq one year later. Where a car bomb a day is the norm, heavy fighting occurring in at least five cities a day, the threat of kidnapping very real and the infrastructure worse now than a year ago.
Journalists could share cars to work on stories, take taxis, stay in unguarded hotels, not worry about being kidnapped and car bombs were rare. Traveling to Ramadi or Fallujah or the south was dangerous, but doable. Now even braving the outskirts of Baghdad finds the odds against me.
Today, while driving down the infamous Haifa street where so much fighting occurs, a deep “thump” shakes our car. Yet another car bomb in the distance. We are snarled in traffic as sirens blare throughout Baghdad. Two pickups full of Iraqi National Guard, half of them wearing black facemasks for fear of reprisal attempt to navigate through the jam.
They shoot their guns impotently in the air, as if cars which are bumper to bumper can clear them a path. They take to the side walk, shoot their guns some more in frustration, and lurch forward.
Ambulances wail, Iraqi Police speed by on the wrong side of the road, everyone honks at noone. This is Baghdad today.
At the Ministry of Health (MOH) on the 11th floor, Dr. Medhi is running the operations room. He sits in front of a whiteboard which lists the major hospitals and governorates of Iraq. Through the interview his phone rings constantly and he excuses himself to stand and change casualty counts coming in from different hospitals. The count in Al-Anbar province (including Fallujah) goes from 3 up to 4 dead, with 6 injured. Another call finds the Diyala governorate going from 3 to 4 dead, and 4 changed 6 injured.
We finish the interview as he takes another call, comments that this is a typical day and stands to go back to amend the board of his dead and wounded countrymen.
Back on the street sirens continue to wail as we creep through the traffic. At one refugee camp for Fallujans we learn it is closed-because a man named Kais Al-Nazzal who owns an apartment building in Baghdad has taken responsibility of the 100 refugee families at the Amiriyah camp and housed, fed and clothed them. An act of beauty amidst the tragedy of occupied Iraq.
Most of the aid going to the refugees is coming from Iraqis, rather than NGO’s or certainly not the MOH. Back at the MOH Shehab Ahmed Jassim, who is in charge of managing the refugee crisis, said they had provided everything the refugees needed. That they’d sent 20 ambulances to the general hospital in Fallujah.
What he neglected to say was that most Fallujans have been unable to reach the main hospital due to ongoing fighting and most being too afraid of detainment by soldiers or Iraqi National Guardsmen to seek medical help. The ambulances returned to Baghdad.
“During the Najaf fighting, things were not like this,” said a doctor I interviewed later, “There were delegations, moveable operating theaters, and plenty of help for them there which was allowed, but for Fallujah, they have done next to nothing. Why?”
Every doctor I’ve interviewed concerning the situation in Fallujah has shared similar sentiments. Theories abound as to why.
We navigate more traffic and arrive at another refugee camp. The Sheikh in charge of the camp, Abu Ahmed, tells us that at noon today several Humvees of soldiers and six trucks of Iraqi National Guard raided their camp.
They asked Abu Ahmed if there were any wounded fighters, and he told them no. They promptly entered the nearby mosque with guns and boots, then went tent to tent…finding nothing.
“Is a 70 year-old woman Osama bin Laden,” the sheikh asked, “Are the kids their terrorists? They have terrorized our camp, broken our traditions, and scared all of the families for what? We are refugees without homes.”
He added, “Now a 6 year-old will grow up hating the Americans. Now a 70 year-old woman is saying, ‘God-damn the Americans!”
Other refugees, like Aziz Abdulla, 27 years old, tell more stories of what they saw in Fallujah. “I saw so many civilians killed there, and I saw several tanks roll over the wounded in the streets.”
Abu Mohammed, 40 years old, told us he saw the military use cluster bombs. A 12 year-old boy told me, “The Americans smashed our city, killed thousands of people, destroyed our mosques and hospitals. Now they come to our camp. Why?”
“The tanks rolled over wounded people in the streets,” said 45 year-old Abu Aziz near his tent, “They shot so many wounded people who went to mosques for shelter. Even the graves were bombed.”
This time last year there were no refugee camps. This time last year I ate kebobs at the famous restaurant in Fallujah several times. It was bombed before the siege of the city even began.
Later this evening I interviewed another doctor, while mortars exploded nearby in a US base. “I had so much hope when the Americans came here,” he said while drinking tea, “But now I am shocked by the reality. I know the Americans came here for their own interests, for oil and their so-called national security.”
He paused, listened as another mortar exploded in the distance and said, “Many of us accepted why they came to Iraq, but there has been no improvement for us with their occupation, even when we tried to work with them. In fact, all has gotten worse. This is why so many people are now fighting them now.”
This time last year, the thought of 100,000 dead Iraqis and over 1,200 dead US soldiers seemed difficult to imagine.